In suburban Atlanta, northern Idaho and a number of other places, churches have moved swiftly to sever ties with the Boy Scouts of America in protest over the vote last month to let openly gay boys participate in Scouting.
To date, it’s far from the mass defection that some conservatives had predicted before the vote by the BSA’s National Council. But the exodus could soon swell, depending on the outcome of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting next week in Houston.
Baptist leaders say the agenda is likely to include a resolution encouraging SBC-affiliated churches to phase out their sponsorships of Scout units.
“I would bet there would be a resolution expressing disappointment with the Boy Scouts’ decision and calling on Southern Baptist churches to prepare for the need for alternatives,” said the Rev. Russell Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“How quickly that happens will probably differ from congregation to congregation,” Moore said. “I do think most Southern Baptists see the Boy Scouts moving in a direction that’s not going to be consistent with our beliefs.”
The Southern Baptists – the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. – already have a youth program for boys, the Royal Ambassadors. SBC leaders have suggested it could expand to accommodate boys leaving the Scouts.
According to BSA figures, Baptist churches sponsor Scout units serving about 108,000 of the BSA’s 2.6 million youth members.
While many Baptist churches might be awaiting the outcome of next week’s meeting, some already have decided to break with the BSA.
In Marietta, Ga., pastor Ernest Easley said his Roswell Street Baptist Church is ending its affiliation with Boy Scout Troop 204 that dates back to 1945.
“I never dreamed I’d have to stand up publicly and say to parents: ‘Pull your kids out of the Boy Scouts,’ ” Easley told Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news agency.
Baptist churches in Elizabethtown and Rineyville, Ky., Helena and Pelham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Ark., also say they’re cutting ties with the BSA.
Tim Reed, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge in Jacksonville, said in an e-mail that his congregation – including a 15-year-old boy on track to win the coveted Eagle Scout rank – strongly backed the decision to end sponsorship of a Scout troop.
“He was set to be one of the youngest boys to make Eagle,” Reed wrote. “He said that he must uphold God’s word over the Boy Scouts’ decision no matter what the personal cost.”
Among the latest to cut ties was Candlelight Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which announced this week that it would end its charter of a troop at the end of this year.
“We’re a Bible-believing church, and the Boy Scouts have opted to pursue a different moral path,” said the associate pastor, Buck Storm. “It’s a sad time for us.”
In all, about 70 percent of the 116,000 Scout units in the United States are sponsored by religious organizations.
Some are liberal denominations that welcomed the change of policy on gay youths and want the Boy Scouts to go further by lifting the still-intact ban on gays serving as adult leaders. But some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative churches that had long supported the Scouts’ no-gays policy and have been wrestling with how to respond to the May 23 vote.
To the relief of BSA leaders, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said it accepts the new youth policy and will not cut ties. The Mormons sponsor more Scout units than any other organization, serving about 430,000 boys.
The United Methodist Church, the second-largest sponsor serving about 363,000 boys, has shied away from official endorsement or rejection of the BSA policy change. Some individual Methodist leaders have been critical, while the General Commission on United Methodist Men, which oversees the denomination’s youth programs, says it will continue to support Scouting.
Similar divisions have surfaced within the Roman Catholic Church, the third-largest Scout sponsor serving about 273,000 youths.
A Catholic pastor in Bremerton, Wash., the Rev. Derek Lappe of Our Lady Star of the Sea, wrote an open letter to his parishioners announcing that the parish would cut its ties with the Scouts and develop new youth programs of its own.
“I am very aware that my objection to the change … is increasingly considered bigoted and backward,” Lappe wrote. “But I won’t put public opinion ahead of the good of the boys and young men in my parish.”
In the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church notified local Scout leaders that the church would no longer sponsor a Cub Scout pack and Boy Scout troop. In a letter conveying the decision, the Rev. Brian Grady wrote that it would be “not only unjust, but immoral” for straight boys to have to share tents on camping trips with gay Scouts.
In Arlington, Va., Catholic Bishop Paul Loverde issued a statement saying the new membership policy “forces us to prayerfully reconsider whether a continued partnership with the BSA will be possible.”
“It is highly disappointing to see the Boy Scouts of America succumb to external pressures and political causes at the cost of its moral integrity,” said Loverde, who predicted the policy change will bring “continuing controversy, policy fights and discord.”
However, the National Catholic Committee on Scouting – which works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to coordinate the church’s involvement in Scouting – has taken a more positive view of the policy change.
“We should be encouraged that the change in BSA’s youth membership standard is not in conflict with Catholic teaching,” Edward Martin, the committee’s chairman, wrote last week in an open letter to Catholics involved in Scouting.
Martin, an Eagle Scout with five children who have been Scouts, said his committee would form a task force to work with Catholic dioceses and parishes on how best to go forward.
“Our youth don’t want to leave Scouting. Scouting is still the best program around,” Martin wrote. “Let’s continue this important journey together.”
Another conservative denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, says it is “deeply concerned” by the policy change, and continues to deliberate on how it will respond.
From its headquarters in Texas, the BSA has formed a task force to smooth the path of implementing the new policy, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
Meanwhile, the BSA says it is reaching out to the organizations that sponsor Scout troops, including those which oppose the policy change.
“We’re finding that for many people, when they read the new policy they see it is reflective of the beliefs of most of Scouting’s major religious chartered organizations,” said BSA spokesman Deron Smith.
Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist official, said he doubted the Scouts’ outreach would succeed in overcoming his denomination’s opposition to the policy change, in part because of a sense that the BSA will eventually lift the ban on gay adults serving as leaders.
“Most Southern Baptists are seeing a trajectory that we’ve seen before in other cultural institutions,” Moore said. “We know how this movie ends.”